The UN High Commission for Human Rights now believes 60,000 Syrians have been killed since March 2011 (far more than claimed by the Syrian opposition) and that death rates have been rising more sharply of late. Given the situation on the ground and the continuing failure of diplomacy, the bloody human toll in Syria — along with far broader suffering and privation – will probably increase before the grueling tug of war between the regime and the opposition draws to a conclusion in one way or another.
The last weekend of 2012 saw an especially severe spike in casualties with government forces counterattacking in the Damascus area, Homs/Hama in central Syria, and Aleppo in the north. Even heavier regime airpower was brought to bear. This contrasted with vigorous opposition advances in recent weeks. It appears that after weeks of sustained offensive operations, some important rebel units ran short of munitions, despite earlier captures of improved weapons and ammunition from government military facilities. Sensing a slackening of pressure, the regime evidently sought to take advantage of the situation by launching a desperate effort to reclaim a few pieces of lost ground and perhaps even wrest some of the initiative from the rebels.
Yet, given the continuing toll on the regime’s own military assets and its inability to replenish its troop losses as readily as those of the rebels, any government gains are likely to be short-lived, especially as rebel forces regroup and resupply themselves once again. Indeed, even as airstrikes have been pounding rebel positions around Damascus in particular, opposition fighters have been closing in on two Syrian air bases farther north. The regime’s growing international isolation and shortages of basic supplies to satisfy the needs of the population (even within the government’s shrunken holdings) suggests it remains at an overall disadvantage regardless.
It should come as no surprise for backers of UN and Arab League representative Lahkdar Brahimi’s most recent initiative that his truce offer has been spurned by the opposition (and not unexpectedly encouraged by an increasingly beleaguered Assad regime). In fact, the choice of Moscow as a venue for talks was especially off-putting for the rebels because, as has been seen, the opposition views Russia as one of the two premier supporters of the Assad regime.
The bottom line is that a sort of Catch-22 situation is continuing on the diplomatic front: the side that believes it has the upper hand and will eventually prevail militarily (currently the opposition) is unlikely to accept a truce because a ceasefire would interfere with its ability to sustain intense military pressure on the other side. Only a prolonged, costly stalemate — not seen in quite a while — might interest both sides in calling at least a temporary halt to the bloodletting.
Meanwhile, failing the defection of substantial army units to the rebels, the fighting is likely to remain fierce — even desperate. From time to time, the rebels capture government caches of better weapons, and that will continue, giving them a somewhat more even playing field against regime forces. Those Syrians (most Alawites, many Christians, as well as a minority of Sunni Arabs who have benefited from the regime) will fight bitterly, fearing a rebel (or even militant Islamic) victory would overturn their world as they know it, perhaps even endangering their own families or entire sectarian communities. And, the longer the bloodletting continues in terms of time, sheer violence, atrocities, and total casualties, the more the amount of retribution — both authorized and spontaneous — will mount for those who have chosen, essentially, to fight for the regime right up, or close, to the bitter end.
Photo: Wojtek Ogrodowczyk/Flickr (2010)